Todd Gitlin & America's Culture War

The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked By Culture WarsBy Todd GitlinMetropolitan Books, 1995237 pp., $25For leftward-leaning thinkers and politicos, Todd Gitlin's latest book should have the effect of a cold shower. A professor of sociology at New York University and one-time president of the 1960's left-wing Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Gitlin argues that it's time for American progressives to move past the ceaseless fragmentation of identity groups in the United States, and focus on building bridges.In The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked By Culture Wars, Gitlin says the roots of the late-20th century culture war transcend budget squabbles and entitlement disputes. At stake, he writes, is: What does it mean to be a member of the American nation? And how can individual freedom and equality be reconciled? Questions not dissimilar to the separatist impulses and egalitarian pursuits that led to the American Civil War.In Twilight, Gitlin traces the last 30 years of American political history in search of the answers to these questions, examining what the left set out to do and where it failed. He argues that the left's obsession with creating respect for cultural differences led it to represent a conglomerate of disparate special-interest groups and subcultures. Further, Gitlin contends, the left became consumed with rectifying repressive conditions of its constituent interest groups while attempting to meld these different ethnic groups and subcultures into a broader, multi-American culture.The result, in Gitlin's terms, was that the right took the White House while the left marched on the English Department, pleading that all cultural points of view should be legitimized. Mapplethorpe replaced Mao as a target of the right's derision, giving it a foothold in the middle class even as it maintained its historical alliance with business and the privileged class. In practical terms, the effect has been that the right consistently wins the bully pulpit of the presidency, and more recently gained authority as purveyor of the "common" American culture. The left, he says, opened up the void in the electorate which was filled by the right, which in turn blames the 1960's Great Society mentality for every social, economic and cultural problem of the '90s, from the disintegration of the family to escalating medical costs.Meanwhile, the left's multicultural constituency focused on strengthening its group identity, and many sought reparations in a shared victimhood. Women, blacks, Hispanics Asians, the handicapped and gays all wanted to right past injustices. And the left, Gitlin claims, accommodated the demands of its constituencies. In the finest democratic tradition, minorities gained access and representation. But there was a cost. Unfortunately, the left couldn't offer a broader vision of the newly expanded democratic process, particularly how the various identity groups fit into the larger American cultural mosaic. As identity groups fought each other over the shrinking resources, a resentment against the left's preoccupation with "special interests" began to build. According to Gitlin's incisive compass, this was the beginning of the left's implosion."The right took the high ground partly because the left abandoned it," Gitlin said in a recent interview. "The right, by default, began speaking the language of universalism while the left dug itself into a corner protecting interest groups."To illustrate the left's lack of perspective, Gitlin points to a recent California controversy over whether to adopt a school textbook. The charge was that the multicultural authors failed to accurately represent the "American history" of blacks separate from whites, Asians separate from blacks, whites as distinguished from Hispanics, and on and on. The ensuing fight over the proper portrayal of all of the ethnic groups in the writing of an American history textbook was castigated by various identity groups. "The left has shredded each other over microscopic differences," says Gitlin. "Instead of combining forces, we have internecine battles and fratricide." Consequently, separatist impulses have pulled apart what the subcultures have in common -- pluralism and individual rights, he maintains.One of the most distressing problems in the debate about culture is that only two perspectives -- left and right -- are usually accepted as the prevailing views. Thankfully, Twilight takes an important step toward prying open the limited left-right spectrum. With an even-handed critique, Gitlin stretches the boundaries of the bitterly divisive partisan debate while beseeching both left and right to focus on the common American values.But the appeal isn't as naive as it sounds. Both sides, in Gitlin's assessment, share the blame in diverting the attention from the core issue."I've been disturbed by the narrowness of the left and the shoddiness of the right," says Gitlin. "What has happened (to the left) is egregious. And we need a fundamental rethinking of principle."The principle at stake, according to Gitlin, is the nature of an open society in which equality is put into practice by a diligent governmental and judicial system. The problem, however, is the recent emergence of a conservative populism that insists government is a hindrance to individual freedom, entitlements to minorities are a drain on taxpayers and of a right-wing indignation that preaches exclusivity and renounces multiculturalism as un-American.Instead, Gitlin prescribes a more engaged public debate about how subcultures are both unique and essential to a broader, common American landscape. Unfortunately, Gitlin struggles to articulate how a healthy debate about culture can transform the current crisis. But getting one-time liberals-turned-neoconservatives to recall the moral imperative of democratic universalism is a beginning.Strangely, Gitlin finds that not many Americans have found time to discuss the essential issues of the social impasse. After all, a protracted social debate ends up sounding like an indulgent PBS documentary in a culture of cola wars, melodramas about choosing the right beer and public discourse conducted in a sitcom lexicon.By not defending itself against the Reaganites' claim that "it," as the responsible creator of big government, was "the problem," and Newt Gingrich's demonization of liberalism as "un-American," the left basically surrendered any political leverage, he argues.After all, reminds Gitlin, it was liberal policies that integrated America, reduced the poverty rate, increased the number of citizens who could afford higher education, enacted laws to protect the environment and secured individual rights for women and a range of minorities, including blacks, people with disabilities and homosexuals.The left may be guilty of raising expectations, as conservative writer Ronald Samuelson charges in his recently published indictment, The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement 1945- 1995. But the left should be credited equally for alleviating the weight of repression on groups denied access and representation in the democratic process.The upcoming presidential campaign will offer a measure of how close the culture wars are to being resolved. Gitlin isn't optimistic."My shadowy view is that we'll oscillate between a bombastic nationalism on the right and kind of ineffectual centrifugal motion on the left," he says. "Ultimately, neither side will come to grips with the economic difficulties."Common dreams, Gitlin convincingly argues, have grown increasingly dissimilar.


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